Students surveyed on sexual violence, context

A study of University of Otago students’ experiences of sexual violence should provide valuable information about how to prevent crimes and provide help for people who experience them, a researcher hopes.

As part of her PhD research, Kayla Stewart sent an electronic survey to all University of Otago students which questioned them about incidents of sexual violence, and their context.

Ms Stewart is now sorting through the information provided, and has filtered through 700 people who volunteered to be interviewed for the research to narrow in on 36 potential case studies — both male and female.

Similar studies of overseas students had suggested anywhere between 20% and 30% of respondents had experienced sexual violence, Ms Stewart yesterday told the Law and Society Association of Australia and New Zealand conference, being held in Dunedin.

The only comparable study in New Zealand dated back to 1991, when 347 psychology students were questioned; from that small sample  about a quarter had experienced some sexual victimisation.

Ms Stewart said her research examined both the nature of the incidents, and the nature of perpetrator.

The questions about incidents ranged from whether respondent had received unwanted attention and unwanted touching, through to actual attacks.

"You might look at the list and think it has been categorised in terms of the severity — but it’s all about how the experience has impacted on their lives," Ms Stewart said.

Her research is in its early stages, but she hoped it would help inform efforts by the  university specifically and the community in general on handling incidents of sexual violence, and preventing them happening.

Earlier, University of Canterbury academic Elisabeth McDonald and Paulette Benton-Greig discussed early results from their research in to the language used in court and how that did or did not influence the outcome of rape trials.

The duo have used written transcripts of 30 trials from 2010-16, and been granted rare access to audio tapes of trials.

All were classed as "acquaintance rape" cases, as those were cases where sexual histories and consent were likely to become issues at trial.

Early findings suggested "rape myths" had been cited and reinforced in some cases: that was most likely to occur in opening or closing statements, or when a judge was summing up for a jury.

Cross-examination was particularly potentially traumatic, as lawyers had a duty to put their case to complainants, Ms Benton-Greig said.

"It would be helpful here if a judge said something like ‘I see you are impacted; the lawyer is putting these questions to you as part of their responsibilities’."

The Evidence Act provides that no questions about a person’s sexual history can be asked unless permitted by a judge, and only then if it related directly to the case.

Prof McDonald said their research hoped to show whether that provision was working.

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